CEDAR PARK, Texas — About four centuries ago, the sultan of the Ottoman Empire grew tired of his troublesome neighbors in Eastern Europe. So Mehmed the Jager, a Muslim holy warrior who reigned for four decades, wrote to the pirate Cossacks living in modern Ukraine, demanding their surrender. The cretins must bow to the civilized.
Today, a large painting that dominates a wall of Tom Markusic’s office shows the Cossack’s response to Mehmed. On the canvas, a dozen rough, heavy drinking men have gathered around a writer, pointing, smoking and laughing exuberantly. The writer writes a lewd, contemptuous response. It is a copy of the famous Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire painting, which hangs in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.
Markusic glances at the painting and explains: “Basically they say, ‘Don’t worry you’re coming to get us – we’re coming to get you.'”
The Lone Star State is far from Ukraine, where the painting is very popular. And although Markusic himself is not a hard-drinking Cossack, he takes inspiration from the story of the rebellious Zaporozhian Cossacks. One of their descendants saved his dreams.
Markusic’s rocket company, Firefly, was left for dead in 2016 when funding dried up. In those last desperate days, when Firefly was burning a million dollars a week, Markusic spent most of his time chasing investors. In the end, Firefly and its 159 employees crashed hard. Few in the aerospace industry were surprised. Then, as now, dozens of rocket startup companies are trying to build newer and cheaper boosters to launch satellites into space. Some failed before Firefly. Some have since failed. Surely, with a plethora of potential launch providers, most will fail in the next few years. It wasn’t surprising that Firefly joined the ash heap.
Only it didn’t fail. Months after Firefly went dark, Markusic found a lifeline in an internet entrepreneur named Max Polyakov, who hails from the city of Zaporizhia in southeastern Ukraine. Together – with Markusic’s technical genius and Polyakov’s money and business sense – they brought Firefly back roaring. The once-deceased company could launch its first rocket this year.
In their own way, Markusic and Polyakov write a response to the aerospace industry that expected their surrender. The rest of the aerospace world needn’t worry about them coming for Firefly – Firefly is coming for them.
A quasi-spiritual moment
Tom Markusic didn’t find the passion that would consume his life until he reached his thirties. By 2006, he had spent ten years in the Air Force and then NASA, using his background in plasma physics to study propulsion. While thinking about career advancement, Markusic had started reading a stack of books on how to become a manager.
Then NASA sent him to Kwajalein, the small Pacific atoll in the Marshall Islands, where a startup company called SpaceX had begun assembling its Falcon 1 rocket for an initial test flight. Markusic was asked to see what he could learn about the company and its way of working.
“I was there, in the jungle, reading these management books, and I saw these guys sweating and putting this rocket together,” he recalls. “It was like a quasi-spiritual moment for me there, because it was such a stark contrast between this old way of doing things (and learning all these management techniques) and people really just doing it. They didn’t know everything, but they said, ‘Hurry up – let’s just do it and go to space.'”
Gradually, Markusic put his books aside and picked up tools. He got his hands dirty. He stopped talking about doing things, and studying how to do things, and just did things. In March 2006, the launch of the first Falcon 1 rocket failed, but that didn’t matter to Markusic. By that summer, he had left NASA to join SpaceX and ended up directing the central Texas site where SpaceX tested its Merlin rocket engines.
At the time, NASA was engaged in an exploration program called “Constellation,” which the agency would use to replicate the performance of the moon landings in the 1960s and 1970s and eventually send humans to Mars. Then-NASA administrator Mike Griffin called the plan “Apollo on steroids.” Critics said the program to build huge, expensive rockets would stall and not lower the cost of reaching space. They were mostly correct and Constellation was canceled in 2010.
“It just occurred to me that if we’re going to do cool stuff in space, we need to figure out how to cut costs, and the people that’s going to figure it out are these people,” Markusic said of companies like SpaceX and others who shared the new space ethos. “I literally went native on NASA and didn’t actually go back. I took part in the SpaceX mission.”
Markusic stayed with SpaceX for five years for shorter periods at Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. He returned to central Texas in 2014, about an hour’s drive from SpaceX’s engine testing site, and founded Firefly. By this time, he had fully embraced the new space and the idea that the biggest barrier between man and the universe is the cost of accessing space.